HOLLYWOOD - The days might be numbered for the old Brad Pitt - the Hollywood heartbreaker, the absurdly handsome leading man who couldn't seem to keep his shirt on in a movie for more than five minutes, the prankster who once ran amok through the streets of Los Angeles in a gorilla suit.
History. Outta here. Going, going, gone.
Now it's time to meet the new, older (and presumably wiser, but no less photogenic) Brad Pitt, who a couple of weekends ago reflected on the themes of his latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which opened in theaters on Christmas Day. Portraying the title character, a man who's born as an octogenarian and ages backward into infancy, Pitt says he had some personal reckoning to do with the temporality of things - a fitting assignment for a man at life's midway point.
"Once you hit 40, you start re-examining the math of it all," says the actor, who turned 45 on Dec. 18. So far, he indicates, the pluses and minuses are adding up just fine. "I'll trade wisdom for youth any day," Pitt says.
That existential swap lies at the heart of David Fincher's film, loosely adapted by screenwriter Eric Roth from a whimsical 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Brought into the world on Armistice Day, 1918, as a slack-skinned, 80-year-old man, Benjamin bears witness to many of the century's epochal events, while the film leapfrogs from New Orleans to Murmansk, Russia, to New York to the Ganges. Finally, he and the film come home to rest in the Crescent City just as Hurricane Katrina is about to strike.
But none of Benjamin's picaresque adventures or brief encounters shapes him more than his passionate, odds-defying relationship with Daisy Fuller (Cate Blanchett), a ballerina who meets Benjamin when she's a child. Although the pair's prime years overlap oh-so-fleetingly, their souls merge in a lasting union. The bittersweet irony of their predicament raises the question of whether Benjamin Button is, in the end, a tragedy.
"It's a tragedy in the sense that any love involves loss, and that's the risk you take," Pitt responds. "And the greater the love, the greater the loss. I certainly feel that now with the woman I'm with, and the children that I have. But whatever the course may be, this time together is extraordinary."
As everyone but a handful of Himalayan monks doubtless knows, the woman who sleeps by Pitt's side these days is Angelina Jolie, with whom he shares parenting duties for six children (three biological, three adopted). During an interview of an hour's duration, Pitt refers repeatedly to his satisfying home life and the way it has refashioned his priorities.
"I had a whole other life and I got to experience a lot. And I probably got away with more than I should," he says. "And it kind of ran its course, you know, it kind of hit a dead end." Fatherhood, he notes, is "the direction I always thought I would go in. But not until with Angie, and it felt like a natural evolution, a natural direction."
Colleagues and friends who've witnessed it confirm Pitt's gradual metamorphosis. Even though Fincher has known the actor for 15 years and directed him in two previous movies, the gruesome crime-thriller Se7en and the darkly satirical Fight Club, he says he was unprepared "for the degree to which [Pitt] has become comfortable with who he is," both on set and off.
"I think a lot of it has to do with his family," Fincher says. "It's like he wants to cut to the chase and go at the thing, and get it and work it and play with it and then be done with it and live to act another day."
Pitt agrees that, as he has matured professionally, "I don't have to grope as much for the character."
"I can get there quicker, so it's not as much trial and error," he says. "Also, as I get older, more experiences, I'm more fine-tuned in what I'm after, what I think speaks in the piece. And lastly I want to hurry and get home to my kids."
Decked out in a subdued, gray three-piece suit, Pitt comes across as a contemplative and polite professional, engaging and intellectually curious. His substance is more than just style: He recently moved his family to New Orleans, the better to help facilitate his foundation's ambitious project to provide the city's flood-ravaged Lower 9th Ward with dozens, if not hundreds, of affordable new housing units.
In some ways, Benjamin Button plays as an elegy for New Orleans and for a lost (or rapidly vanishing) part of what culture critic Greil Marcus called "the Old, Weird America." Personally, Pitt says, he won't be sorry to see the current White House administration exiting stage left. But he thinks it would be premature to start writing a national obit.
"America's known for our ingenuity," he says. "We put a man on the moon, for [Pete's] sake. And it'd be a shame to lose that definition because of some kind of fear of losing what we were, or what we had. That's the quickest way, I think, to end it all. We're going to be all right."
Because it spans the character's entire life, Benjamin Button inadvertently serves as a showcase for Pitt's various cinematic personas. At one point in the movie, he evokes Jack London's Sea Wolf as a craggy sailor of fortune. Later in the film, when Benjamin reaches his prime, Pitt brings to mind James Dean on a motorcycle, or John F. Kennedy on his sailboat, navigating the swells of destiny.
Pitt's startling appearance "from the neck up" as the aged Benjamin was achieved with the help of several smaller body doubles and a bevy of computer-generated imagery. Pitt says he "focused on the knees, and the spine giving out, the relaxed vocal quality, the loss of elasticity."
Movies are a kind of fountain of youth, in which the stars of our memories can remain forever immune to mortality. But Pitt, the one-time golden boy of Hollywood, sounds ready to turn to the next chapter. Lately, he says, he has been acquiring "more friends who are older than myself than younger" - even though, as he puts it, "I wouldn't say our culture leans toward respecting the wisdom of age and those who've been around a lot. It's Beavis and Butt-Head: 'You're old!' "
What matters more than one's age, he suggests, is maintaining a creative spirit that lasts a lifetime.
"Another thing the film points to," he says, "you meet someone who is maybe in their 60s, 70s, even 80s, and you meet them as that person, anyone beyond the age of retirement, so to speak. And you seldom realize they had a whole life of experience. They were just as virile and ingenious and capable as you believe yourself to be."
Michael Sragow is on vacation. His film column does not appear today.